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Getting a first-hand look at burned trails closed in the Santiam State Forest

A Department of Forestry spokesperson said most of the trails in the Santiam State Forest are closed due to wildfire damage, but there are efforts to restore them.

Many hiking trails in the Santiam State Forest are closed to the public due to damage from wildfires that hit the area nine months ago. 

For some, the closures are frustrating. KGW decided to go take a look at why those trails are still closed and learn more about the efforts to restore them.

The hike began in the Niagara area on the Natural Arch Trail. It’s usually a popular spot with beautiful views, but there were signs at the entrance warning people that the area is closed to the public.

Jason Cox, public affairs specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said most of the trails in the Santiam State Forest are closed, with no burned areas open to the public. Cox, along with another ODF staff member, highlighted the kind of damage that can be found on roughly 80% of the trails in the Santiam State Forest.

“This is an example of where the trail has been degraded so badly that you almost can’t really tell where it is anymore,” said Cox on one segment of the Natural Arch Trail.

Cox said this was the first time TV news cameras have been allowed into this area of the Santiam State Forest.

Throughout the hike, Cox pointed out multiple staircases that had burned in the Beachie Creek Fire. Only one of six sets of stairs on the trail survived. Safety handrails are gone too.

Credit: Christine Pitawanich/KGW
Burned stairs on Natural Arch Trail in Santiam State Forest

Further along the trail, burned-out roots have created holes underneath the trail.

“You can stick your arm all the way under here and my hand is actually under the trail right now. So it gives you an idea of one wrong step on some of these trails, this can collapse and people can get hurt,” said Cox.

If you’re familiar with hiking, you know that typically there’s not a lot of loose rock on the trail.

Cox said the layer of dirt and other organic debris that used to be on top burned off in the wildfire. That means one wrong step, and you could go sliding. If someone gets hurt, a call to search and rescue crews would be putting rescuers in similar danger.

Credit: Christine Pitawanich/KGW
On the Natural Arch Trail in the Santiam State Forest

“This is a log that fell across the trail because of the fire and it’s actually completely blocked the trail, so we’re going to have to climb completely up and over to get around it,” Cox said during one portion of the trail

There were also other logs that had slid down the hill, bringing rock with it.

When walking through the burned-out area, you’ll also hear cracking noises from the trees. Cox said it’s fortunate there wasn’t a lot of wind while we were there, because if it were windier, it’s possible that branches or some of the trees themselves might fall. That is one of the many reasons why trails are still closed.

“That’s why we’re wearing hard hats today,” said Cox.

Credit: Christine Pitawanich/KGW
Natural Arch Trailhead in Santiam State Forest

There are efforts to restore trail so people can get back into the beautiful forests.

“A lot of people have been really hard hit emotionally because of this fire,” said Shawn Morford. She is the executive director of the Tillamook Forest Heritage Trust, which is a statewide nonprofit focused on supporting ODF.

Morford said they recently started the State Forests Wildfire Restoration Fund to clean up and re-imagine trails in the Santiam State Forest, as well as improve signage.

“We were getting phone calls from people who said, ‘how can I help.”

Morford is also fueled by her own personal connection to this forest.

“Our property got burned, so this is very, very personal to me. I’m very committed to it on a personal level,” Morford said.

Cox said the money donated to help ODF restore trails is helpful.

“We don’t have a budget for rebuilding restoration after wildfire. We don’t receive general funds from the legislature for really any component for managing state forest and one of those is recreation,” Cox said.

According to Cox, state forests are mainly funded by timber sales. However, those sales don’t provide the type of funding needed for the type of work that needs to get done on trails in the Santiam State Forest.

Still, right now Cox said ODF is doing all it can to restore trails.

"We're using our own staff, sometimes seasonal, to come in and supervise the work [...] to dig some trail, removing big hazard rocks and that sort of thing. We’re also working with Northwest Youth Corps and Trailkeepers of Oregon to sort of boost our capacity further. We’ve also been enlisting the use of adult-in-custody crews to do some of the labor work as well," said Cox.

But the fund is a way the community can help, so gorgeous areas like Natural Rock Arch in the Santiam State Forest can be restored quicker and open back up for everyone to enjoy.

Credit: Christine Pitawanich/KGW
Natural Rock Arch

“The forests are recovering along with the communities here in the canyon that were so devastated by the fire," said Cox. "And it’s a long-term endeavor."

For more information on how to donate, visit the Tillamook Forest Heritage Trust website.

People who want to know which trails are open or closed, can visit the Oregon Wildfire Response website.